It's fitting, then, that Sunday's win over the Washington Redskins was clinched on a game-ending interception in the red zone by linebacker Jerod Mayo.
"Jerod made a great play down there in the red area," said safety James Ihedigbo according to Patriots.com. "Talk about finishing a football game, that's how you want to finish in the defensive end: Making a play, giving up no points and coming out with a victory."
If there's one thing we've learned about the Patriots defense this season, it's that the final numbers on the stat sheet will rarely—if ever—be pretty. What's gotten them by thus far is their ability to make key plays at pivotal points in the game.
The big question now is whether that will be enough to earn wins in January.
"It was good enough today," said Mayo, according to Patriots.com, "but it probably won't be good enough any other week. So we have to continue to improve and hopefully that happens."
Hopefully, to be sure. The Patriots have won games with their offense all season long, winning nine out of 10 games when they have scored 30 or more points.
Conversely, two of their three losses have come when they score less than 30, and they are 3-3 when giving up more than their average of 21 points per game.
Stats and scores aside, the Patriots defense has made key plays when they've needed to, a trademark of an opportunistic bend-don't-break defense. But the Patriots know that they may not have the luxury of waiting to make those one or two key plays if they want to string three wins together in the playoffs.
Fortunately, they've shown the ability to make plays when they need to. Unfortunately, they've done so against marginal competition. Needless to say, their opponents will be much stiffer competition when the games matter.
But the Patriots defense has stiffened up when the situation has mattered this season. Their defense has allowed touchdowns on just 50 percent (26/52) of trips to the red zone this season. On Sunday, they allowed touchdowns on just two of Washington's five red zone possessions, and just one of three goal-to-go situations.
Two long drives—one of 75 yards, the other 71 yards—resulted in field goals.
"Red zone: That's the money down," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork according to Patriots.com. "In the red zone, you think eventually, you have to raise your level of play. You don't want to give seven points up, you don't want to give any points up. Make them kick a field goal. Sometimes we've done that, sometimes we haven't, but the red zone is always a critical play."
To be sure, the Patriots defense hasn't been elite at any point this season. Despite this simple fact, they've won 10 games. It's easy to conclude, then, that the Patriots don't need the defense to be good in January.
Just good enough.